New Acquisitions in the National Trust for Historic Preservation Library: Adding to the Papers of William J. Murtagh

This past October, the historic preservation community lost one of its champions in Dr. William J. Murtagh. Dr. Murtagh, who served from 1967 through 1979 as the first “Keeper” of the National Register of Historic Places, led the movement and fostered the organization which recorded, approved, and promoted the preservation of historically significant locales throughout the United States. The Special Collections at the University of Maryland libraries is especially proud to house the William J. Murtagh papers, a portion of which has been available since 2004 within the National Trust Library in Hornbake Library.

A Philadelphia native, “Bill” Murtagh studied abroad from 1954-1955 at the Universities of Bonn and Freiburg in Germany before returning to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a PhD in architectural history in 1963. His early academic career led to a focus in Moravian architecture, a southeastern Pennsylvania Dutch style characterized by its masonry, attention to city planning, and communal organization. In 1967, Murtagh published Moravian Architecture and Town Planning, documenting the style’s prevalence in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and other North American communities.

Murtagh wore many professional hats during a long life devoted to historic preservation, promoting the National Trust for Historic Preservation and supporting preservation efforts nationwide. All of this comes in addition to his service as the National Register’s first keeper, where he presided over the approval of over 20,000 historic sites ranging in size and scope from the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fallingwater, to an 18th century brick schoolhouse in Providence, Rhode Island. The position also inherited the registry of other incredibly diverse locales such as the Lincoln Memorial and the San Francisco Cable Car system. [1]

He saw the movement as “a way to combat visual and cultural pollution” and emphasized the intrinsic connection of historic places to local communities [2]. He accepted proposals broadly “so long as a state provided evidence that a place was somehow, to some degree, significant, no matter how provincial it might seem to outsiders” and made the National Register a designation encouraging of local definitions of historical importance rather than a top-down or dismissive establishment. [2]

His organizational presence was boundless and included service on numerous preservation-focused boards and committees including the U. S. Committee of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (US/ICOMOS), Historic Bethlehem, Inc., Preservation Institute-Nantucket, the Governor’s Consulting Committee on the National Register for the state of Maryland, the Pacific Preservation Consortium, and many others.

Dr. Murtagh extended his academic career as a professor and administrator. He taught at George Washington University, the University of Florida, Columbia University, the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and here at the University of Maryland, just to name a few. In 2006, he would also publish Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America, a textbook and primer introducing a wide range of students to the concepts and field of historic preservation.

In his later years, Murtagh resided in Sarasota, Florida, and Penobscot, Maine, where he continued his involvement in the historic preservation movement, following and advising on both local, national, and international topics. In October 2018 at the age of 95, Dr. Murtagh passed away from heart failure at his Florida residence. [2] [3] He left behind an extensive body of work and a permanent imprint on the protection of many significant “districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects” in the United States. [1]

University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives received Murtagh’s papers in three different accessions. The first and largest accession of the William Murtagh Papers spans 50.25 linear feet and is fully processed. It is organized into 15 series detailing Murtagh’s careers in academia, published writing, and service to professional organizations. Materials include extensive mixed personal and professional correspondence, postcards, photographs, travel materials, reports, papers, conference materials, notes, speeches, publications, course materials, blueprints, drawings, audio recordings, and memorabilia.

The two new additions supplement the original collection in more ways than previously imagined. Newly received lecture recordings, notes, and correspondence enhance our understanding of Dr. Murtagh’s academic and publishing careers while drawings, photographs, and daguerreotypes further contextualize his personal life and genealogy. Lectures, notes, and faculty filings demonstrate Murtagh’s value to historic preservation programs at multiple schools like the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Extensive unprocessed slide collections, estimated at around 9000 slides, document his work and leisure activities (which were not far different), displaying sites across the country and the world.

The new collections also add awards and memorabilia including a key to the city of Savannah, Georgia, a Louise DuPont Crowninshield Award for historic preservation, family keepsakes, and artistic paintings and sketches done by Murtagh post-retirement.

The new collections reiterate and emphasize Dr. Murtagh’s vast commitment to Historic Preservation into retirement and with his local communities in Maine and Florida. The materials also document his active role in the Keepers Preservation Education Fund (a scholarship fund for preservation students), the writing of Keeping Time, and participation in local preservation societies.

University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives, also home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation Library, is honored to have the William J. Murtagh papers, alongside those of his fellow preservationists Frederick L. Rath, Charles Hosmer, Ernest Allen Connally, and Charles E. Peterson, and hope that they are utilized by researchers investigating the history and practice of historic preservation in the twentieth century.

[1] U.S. National Park Service. n.d. “National Register of Historic Places.” Accessed February 4, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/index.htm

[2] Smith, Harrison. 2018 “William J. Murtagh, ‘Pied Piper’ of American Historic Preservation.

Dies at 95.” The Washington Post, October 30, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/william-j-murtagh-pied-piper-of-american-historic-preservation-dies-at-95/2018/10/30/8d3e282e-dc4e-11e8-b3f0-62607289efee_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.57401ee9139b

[3] Roberts, Sam. 2018. “William J. Murtagh, Lion of Historic

Preservation, Dies at 95.” The New York Times, November 5, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/05/obituaries/william-j-murtagh-dead.html


Willem Kalbach is a second year MLIS student in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. He works in the State of Maryland and Historical Collections at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives.


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